If you hang a bird feeder in your yard, you are probably already growing millet.
Millet is those tiny, blonde seeds found in bird seed. It is also a delicious, easy to grow, gluten-free porridge. [In the same way as corn, rice, barley, and wheat, millet seeds are actually a specialized dry fruit, called a caryopsis, but we'll leave that for another discussion.]
Originally from Asia and Africa, people have been growing and eating millet for over 7,000 years. Some historians believe that millet played a major role in humanity’s shift from hunter-gatherers to farmers. Today, millet is still an important food source in many regions. You may be surprised to learn that millet, and not rice, is the primary carbohydrate food source in northern China. Millet can be eaten as a sweet, with milk and sugar, or as a savory dish, with the addition of meat and vegetables. Millet is high in protein, dietary fiber, and several B vitamins. A single serving of millet provides 76% of the RDA for manganese, which makes me wonder why we don’t eat more of it. The only cereal-related nutrient that millet is lacking is lysine, but buckwheat contains high levels of this important amino acid, so eating millet and buckwheat together makes for a healthy diet.
Types of millet
Millets are actually a group of plants in the grass family (Poaceae). Unlike most families, many millet varieties are only remotely related to one another. You can track down the different groupings, if you feel so inclined, but the most commonly grown are:
Sorghum, also found in bird seed mixes and cereal bowls, is sometimes called Great millet, but it is generally considered a separate cereal from millet.
How millet grows
Millet is an annual that grows quickly in hot, dry weather, on crappy soil. Of course, it performs far better when plant nutrients and irrigation are present, but it’s an extremely resilient plant. [The only thing it cannot tolerate is waterlogged soil and mud.] Depending on the variety, mature millet plants can reach a height of 2 to 5 feet.
Millet grows so fast that seeds will sometimes sprout while still attached to the spike! Normally, seeds germinate in 5 days, and spikes are ready to harvest in 50 to 180 days, depending on the variety and weather conditions. Because it grows so quickly, millet can also be used for erosion control, or as a green manure. It also tends to grow faster than most weeds. Millet is a good choice for filling in difficult spaces of the yard. Local birds will appreciate the free lunch, too!
How to grow millet
Millet seeds can be broadcast by hand over an area and raked in, or you can drill holes that are 1 to 4” deep for the seeds. [Did I mention that millet is rugged?] Once plants are established, they will readily self-seed the area, year after year. Because of millet’s high carbon to nitrogen (C:N) ratio, it is best balanced with low C:N plants, such as legumes, in crop rotation.
Millet pests and diseases
Generally speaking, millet has few pests, other than Bagrada bugs and crane flies. Millet diseases lean toward the fungal variety, with blast, leaf spot, downy mildews, ergot, rust, Johnson spot, smut, and blight causing the most problems. Simply provide good drainage and reasonable irrigation to avoid most of these diseases.
Millet, it’s not just for the birds (though you may need to protect your crop with netting or row covers, if you want any left to harvest). You can have it for breakfast, use it to increase biodiversity in your yard, or, if you’re feeling adventurous, millet can even be used to make alcoholic beverages!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!